In late February, Searchlight announced the start of production for a film called Empire of Light. Directed by Sam Mendes and featuring A-list talent like Olivia Colman, Colin Firth, and Roger Deakins, the movie will take place around a “beautiful old cinema on the south coast of England in the 1980s.” An intriguing synopsis, but to trained eyes, one line in the press release stuck out above the rest — the one where Mendes thanks the studio for allowing him to do “such a personal project.”
Yes, that’s right: Sam Mendes is finally making his Roma.
From François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows to John Boorman’s Hope and Glory to Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, directors have long turned their gaze back to their own adolescence. But when Alfonso Cuarón painstakingly re-created the Mexico City of his childhood, he didn’t just win an Academy Award; he kicked off a mini-trend for his fellow filmmakers. These days, you’re not a real auteur unless you too have lovingly crafted a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age film. The 2022 Oscars have two such films in contention, and there should be even more to come before the year is up. If you’re too old to make a superhero movie and too young to die, making your own Roma is one of the few artistic paths left.
While all of these projects are, of course, beautiful and unique, they do share some key similarities. These are the rules for making your own Roma:
➽ ALWAYS be a venerable director in the second half of a long and illustrious career.
➽ OFTEN pitch the movie as your “most personal film” following a string of commercial projects.
➽ ALWAYS look back on the era of your childhood, exploring the ways your domestic situation was influenced by the turbulence of the world at large.
➽ OFTEN focus specifically on the dissolution of your parents’ marriage.
➽ ALWAYS subordinate plot to mood and tone. You’re aiming to conjure the Zeitgeist, not outdo Hitchcock.
➽ OFTEN give hints to the way these early years foreshadowed your future development as an artist.
➽ OFTEN be a dude.
➽ OFTEN shoot in black-and-white.
➽ HOPEFULLY win a bunch of Oscars.
How can we tell all these films apart? Here’s a guide.
The director: Alfonso Cuarón, a previous Best Director winner for Gravity.
The world: Early ’70s Mexico City, where an upper-middle-class domestic drama plays out in the foreground and right-wing paramilitary groups train in the background.
Do the parents get divorced? Yup.
Is it in black-and-white? Yup.
How autobiographical is it? Very! Cuarón painstakingly re-created his childhood home for the film, even going so far as to reclaim old pieces of furniture from his extended family and purposely casting actors for their physical resemblance to the people in his life. Ultimately, he estimates that 90 percent of the film comes from his personal memories.
How much of a Roma is it? Oddly enough, though it created the recent trend of prestige filmmakers looking backward, Roma departs from the mold in one key way: The director’s youthful avatar is only a minor character. The protagonist is Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a stand-in for the nanny who acted as his surrogate mother. “I was forced to approach her for the first time in my life, to see her as a woman … with the complexities of her situation,” he told Vanity Fair. Also unlike its successors, there’s little sign that the Cuarón stand-in will grow up to be a great artist; it’s Cleo who has the film’s most memorable moviegoing experiences.
The director: Kenneth Branagh, a previous Best Director nominee for Henry V.
The world: Northern Ireland at the dawn of the Troubles, when sectarian violence and financial struggles mix with schoolyard crushes and lazy afternoons singing “Danny Boy.”
Do the parents get divorced? No, but the ups and downs of their marriage are a key subplot.
Is it in black-and-white? Yup.
How autobiographical is it? Many scenes in Belfast come straight from Branagh’s memoir, though there is a wee bit of creative license, particularly in the western-aping showdown that forms the film’s climax. (Incidentally, this is also the weakest part of the movie — talk about a suspect device.) And you have to figure Jamie Dornan and Caitríona Balfe are just slightly better looking than their real-life counterparts. Still, the film’s determinedly middlebrow sensibilities bear their own personal stamp for Branagh: The working-class upbringing depicted in Belfast is what spurred him to create prestige art accessible to the masses.
How much of a Roma is it? If you’re looking for a reason that Belfast has slightly underperformed this Oscars season, you might pinpoint the Roma comparisons, which have the unfortunate side effect of making Branagh’s film seem second best. Although they may be unflattering, they’re not unreasonable: While Belfast’s crowd-pleasing craic couldn’t be further from Roma’s austere formalism, the films share many commonalities, from rampaging mob scenes to stark black-and-white cinematography. Might Branagh have been better served by shooting the whole film in color as vibrant as his characters’ joy?
Hand of God
The director: Paolo Sorrentino, a previous Best Foreign-Language Film winner for The Great Beauty.
The world: Naples in the 1980s, where the life of a young Timothée Chalamet doppelgänger (Filippo Scotti) revolves around two obsessions: his uncomfortably hot aunt, and soccer superstar Diego Maradona.
Do the parents get divorced? Something even worse happens.
Is it in black-and-white? No.
How autobiographical is it? In major plot points, very much so. Sorrentino really did suffer the family tragedy depicted in Hand of God, and his life really was spared thanks to his devotion to Maradona. However, the ever-slippery stylist cautions us not to take the film as a literal re-creation of his teenage years. “When I write, I start believing my own lies, to the point when I’m no longer able to distinguish between what is true and false,” Sorrentino told the New York Times.
How much of a Roma is it? While Sorrentino is far less reserved a filmmaker than Cuarón, his film does feature Roma’s languid pace and its hints of magical realism. And he hits the “this is the birth of a young filmmaker” note even harder: Hand of God’s final act is based on its hero’s brushes with the director Antonio Capuano, who served as Sorrentino’s mentor in real life.
Apollo 10 1/2
The director: Richard Linklater, a previous Best Director nominee for Boyhood.
The world: The Houston suburbs in the summer of ’69, when the moon landing is everyone’s major obsession.
Do the parents get divorced? No.
Is it in black-and-white? The opposite, almost: It’s in the same rotoscope animation style Linklater used on Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly.
How autobiographical is it? The setting comes straight from Linklater’s childhood, but the premise includes a flight of fancy: What if NASA accidentally made the lunar module too small for an adult, thereby requiring a kid astronaut to be sent to the moon first? In real life, Linklater did not go to the moon.
How much of a Roma is it? According to SXSW festival reviews, the moon plot is something of a red herring. The bulk of the film is devoted to Linklater’s everyday memories of the late ’60s, narrated by his School of Rock star Jack Black — hippies, MAD magazine, Frito pie. This is Roma as daydream: no plot, just vibes.
The Souvenir and The Souvenir Part II
The director: Joanna Hogg, a Breakthrough Director nominee at the 2009 London Critics Circle Film Awards.
The world: 1980s London, where a film student (Honor Swinton-Byrne) has an affair with an elusive older man (Tom Burke) in part one, then attempts to make a thesis project out of the emotional wreckage in part two.
Do the parents get divorced? Nope. They’re two stiff, posh peas in a pod.
Is it in black-and-white? No, but the cinematography has a grainy, aged look that emphasizes the ’80s-ness.
How autobiographical is it? Extremely. Hogg obsessively recreated her school days, constructing a replica of her Mayfair apartment in an aircraft hanger, and using her own student films as her heroine’s. These are strikingly tactile films, invested with the sense-memory of physical objects.
How much of a Roma is it? A borderline case. Unlike the guys on this list, Hogg toiled away in TV obscurity for years, and didn’t get to direct her first feature until she was in her 40s. Rather than being the passion project she made after she was already famous, the Souvenir movies were her breakthrough. But we’re including them here, both because the ’80s Zeitgeist is so strong and because they hit the “first steps of a burgeoning director” note so hard.
Empire of Light
The director: Sam Mendes, a previous Best Director winner for American Beauty.
The world: A stately old cinema on the south coast of England in the early ’80s. The exact plot is unknown, but if the script doesn’t include the words bloody Thatcher, I’ll eat my hat.
Do the parents get divorced? According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Mendes “was raised in London by his mother, a writer of children’s fiction; she and his father, a university professor, had divorced when Mendes was five.” Probably yes!
Is it in black-and-white? Unclear, but cinematographer Roger Deakins just released a book of black-and-white photographs full of shots from English seaside towns, so it’s possible.
How autobiographical is it? TBD until it comes out, but I can’t find any record of Mendes working at a movie theater.
How much of a Roma is it? This is Mendes’s first solo screenplay credit, which sounds promising. Although the film is reportedly a romance — which means it could go either way — the fact that it takes place around an old cinema likely indicates we’re in for another “how I became an artist” project.
The director: Steven Spielberg, a two-time previous Best Director winner for Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan.
The world: Postwar Arizona, where the real Spielberg grew up experimenting with 8mm films.
Do the parents get divorced? The breakup of Spielberg’s parents, whose analogues will be played by Michelle Williams and Paul Dano, seems to indeed be a key element.
Is it in black-and-white? Unknown. While he has experimented with desaturated palettes on projects like Saving Private Ryan and Minority Report, Spielberg hasn’t worked in pure black-and-white since Schindler’s List.
How autobiographical is it? Per THR, the project will be “loosely based” on Spielberg’s “formative years and his relationship with his parents.” Reports also say the film will be split between different time periods, with The Predator’s Gabriel LaBelle cast as the avatar for the teenage Spielberg.
How much of a Roma is it? The Fabelmans will be the first time since A.I. that Spielberg will work from a script he co-wrote, this time with Tony Kushner. However, it seems as though Williams might be something close to a co-lead; the trades have emphasized the meatiness of her role and taken care to note that her character will have her own “separate and original voice.” Some Oscar pundits think the reason West Side Story underperformed this season could be that Academy members are saving their Spielberg votes for next year. If that’s the case, could this finally be the film that breaks Williams’s long Oscar drought?